Giant petrels (Macronectes spp.) prey on depredating sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus)

Abstract

Relationships between seabirds and cetaceans can vary from symbiotic to predatory. At high latitude seas in the Southern Hemisphere, giant petrels (Macronectes spp.) and male sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are often solitary, but commercial longlining for Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) provides consistent feeding opportunities that result in persistent aggregations of both. From ~ 1997 to 2019, we opportunistically photographed 23 events where individual giant petrels preyed on the flesh of live sperm whales that were depredating from Patagonian toothfish longliners near South Georgia, Crozet, and Kerguelen Islands. Both immature and adult southern (M. giganteus) and northern (M. halli) giant petrels were implicated in these predation events. Sperm whales reacted to attacks from one or more giant petrels by sinking or flinching, and then arching, rolling, diving, and snorkelling at the surface during subsequent predation attempts. Depredating sperm whales will dive deep, fast, and for long periods which can result in limited dive ability while replenishing oxygen stores at the surface. This behaviour, and the relatively high density of both species around longlining vessels may facilitate unique opportunities for giant petrels to exploit live sperm whales that are not likely as common under circumstances not sustained by longlining operations

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Acknowledgements

We thank Captain John Bennett at Sanford Seafood, Katherine Ross formerly at the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, Charlotte Chazeau, Patrice Pruvost, Alexis Martin (PECHEKER database) at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) de Paris, John Durban, Bob Pitman, and Paul Tixier for helping to facilitate this project. We also thank Romain Bochard, Christian Lemarchand, Corentin Matheron, and Nick Wren for helping to photo-document this behaviour, Elysanne Durand for assistance with preparing materials, and Peter Ryan, Mariano Sironi, and an anonymous individual for providing helpful reviews of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jared R. Towers.

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Supplementary material 1 (MP4 77020 kb) Online Resource 1. An H4 age class northern giant petrel (Macronectes halli) preys on a live sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) near South Georgia Island on May 27, 2015. This image sequence from predation event 12 (see Table 1) shows the approach of the northern giant petrel, the predation event, and the sink, arch, and dive response of the sperm whale.

Supplementary material 2 (JPG 1387 kb) Online Resource 2. Image sequence from predation event 4 (see Table 1) showing a G5 age class southern giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus) landing on the back of a surfacing sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) near Crozet Islands at 12:54:42 and pecking it at 12:54:43.

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Towers, J.R., Gasco, N. Giant petrels (Macronectes spp.) prey on depredating sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Polar Biol 43, 919–924 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-020-02687-2

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Keywords

  • Giant petrel
  • Macronectes
  • Sperm whale
  • Physeter macrocephalus
  • Prey
  • Depredation